Tom Pashley is in his 27th year at the Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina, including the past seven as president at a property that’s affectionately known as the Cradle of American golf.
Under Pashley’s leadership, Pinehurst has undertaken a dramatic modernization: Gil Hanse’s renovation of the No. 4 course, the opening of popular social spots like the Pinehurst Brewery and The Deuce Bar, and the introduction of engaging golf amenities such as the Thistle Dhu putting course and the nine-hole Cradle par-3 course.
Pashley recently took time to discuss the rebound of golf travel in 2021 after the detrimental impact of the coronavirus in 2020, the opportunity that exists for golf, and changes – both throughout the game and at Pinehurst.
From a golf standpoint, what has Pinehurst been seeing in 2021?
We’re experiencing this resurgence in demand unlike anything I’ve experienced in the 25 years I’ve been here. The number of people who were still willing to travel during these difficult times and want to come to Pinehurst… they were driving (in 2020), but there was a very heightened sense of demand. What we saw in the fall of 2020 was incredible and we’re expecting it to surpass that.
It doesn’t always matter where you go, it matters who you’re with. We’re never going to take being with our friends and family on a golf trip for granted again. I got to go on lots of golf trips every year and it was an automatic assumption that it would continue. So, when folks have the ability to get back together and be with their eight, 12 or 20 buddies and come to a special place like this, it’s going to feel so much better because we weren’t able to for so long. It’s that anticipation of getting together with friends.
What’s your take on the surge that golf saw amid the pandemic?
There’s been so many factors and so many things that have led to it. I’m a dad of a sports-travel kids and I wasn’t able to go to these small towns and sit in the gyms all day while my kids play volleyball and soccer. We’ve had the opportunity to play some additional golf and get together with some golfing friends. Some things will change. We’ll have more obligations and things we’ll have to do, but the desire to get away we’re seeing remains strong.
My 14-year-old son was not a golfer. He was a soccer player, a basketball player, a baseball player, and golf wasn’t really on his radar. But when all his team sports stopped playing, he started playing the Cradle here at Pinehurst. It was 36 and raining the one day and he called me to see if the range was open. There’s very few silver linings in this, but more kids playing the game of golf is one of them, for sure. Hopefully we’ve set the hook.
They were just two words before all this that told you there were big things coming – that there was all this ‘latent demand.’ I remember pinning hopes on that. Boy oh boy, we got a little bit of a tsunami with that. And I love that Topgolf has introduced a lot of people to swinging a golf club and seeing a ball fly through the air. Thank goodness for us at Pinehurst that we were ready for that latent demand. We had our putting course; we have the Cradle ready for these folks. We’re not just a 7,000-yard championship course experience, but we had some of this innovation that was ready to welcome newer people into the game.
What have you seen in and around golf over the past year or so that might take more of a hold in years to come?
There are little things that might turn out to be more meaningful in the long term. We had just gotten a shipment of push carts for all nine of our courses in January of 2020. We were allowing to be used on all nine courses and we’d run out on all of them because people wanted to walk. We’ve seen this trend of people wanting to be outside and using a (push) cart that hopefully will stay. Leaving the pin in has been a thing. I hope that stays. We had rakes out of our bunkers for almost a year. Bunkers aren’t supposed to be perfect. Hopefully people won’t rush to throw rakes back in bunkers and obsess over having perfect lies when you’re in a hazard.”
With travel limited in 2020, it presented major challenges for golf resorts like Pinehurst. Can you talk about the golf auction that Pinehurst undertook for its employee relief fund, raising much-needed money for hotel and restaurant workers, the caddies and everyone else?
When we had to say goodbye temporarily to so many of our fellow employees, it was just devastating. These people who have worked at Pinehurst as long as I have or longer. There was so much uncertainty, but it inspired me and us to try to find a way to help those folks. We were overwhelmed by the generosity of others and that people wanted to help. When we launched in late March (2020), very early in the pandemic, I remember feeling like people must feel very strongly about Pinehurst and our employees for them to be building on these. We were selling a golf ball for $25 so people could be part of it. The head of agronomy, retired 15 years ago, made a donation of $1,895 that was a nod to everything. When we began bringing everyone back we started using the phrase, ‘Pinehurst Family.’ What everyone went through last year, it comes from a genuine place where previously it would have felt manufactured.
How much of a balance is there in trying to modernize and appeal to what more of what consumers are looking for today, but still leaning on the history of a property like Pinehurst?
I was the marketing person here for a long time, so when we would try to look at what was our unique selling proposition it was history. Being able to walk in the footsteps of legends was the umbrella campaign of our advertising. It was about history and legends, and I recall that at some point there was a published comment that Pinehurst is perhaps taking itself a bit too seriously. It was hard to imagine. This is kind of a serious place. We’ve had a lot of great moments, and why shouldn’t we take our selves seriously. But that’s the danger. Finding that balance of traditional things and formality, but also not being stuck in the past. I think of some of the old great, historic destinations where people dress up in historic costumes and show you how to make butter. That’s fun, but I’d rather experience it myself.
Pinehurst is not a time capsule. It’s not a place you come and reflect on how great the game used to be. You can do that here, but you can also celebrate the current game and think about the future. That’s one of the challenges for us. There are times we want to push the envelope a little further. What I don’t want to have happen is be the one that went too far. With something like The Cradle, when we began playing music, that was an opportunity to maybe have tried just a little too hard. We might have stopped short of playing music because we were fearful that we’d overstep. But we dipped our toe in, we tried it and it was celebrated. For me it goes back to the restoration of Pinehurst No. 2. That was a moon shot if you will. That was the big idea. And the big risk. From that moment when the first people teed it up when that job was complete and the feedback was positive and people liked that Pinehurst was acknowledging its history and preserving the Donald Ross aesthetic. It’s emboldened us to stay true to our past but also be relevant today.
The National Golf Foundation is a community of individuals and golf businesses committed to being the most well-informed advocates for the growth of the industry. With the world’s largest research team dedicated to golf, NGF provides members with the most accurate and objective insights on the game. We help golf businesses better understand their market and grow their businesses. The NGF is the only association for everyone in golf, and we advocate for growth by educating and connecting our members.